JUST one cycle of unseasonal weather, the death of a sole breadwinner, or the vagaries of fate in some other form, can drive the poorest of the poor to the edge of survival for an extended period. For those in the lowest income strata, a monthly stipend of Rs5,000 per month under the Benazir Income Support Programme can help keep the home fires burning and provide a cushion against financial shocks. It is therefore heartening to see the PTI government give due importance to this premier social security scheme, especially at a time when double-digit inflation is pushing the poor even deeper into poverty. On Friday, the National Assembly was informed that over 4.4m new names are being added to the list of beneficiaries and that 70,000 had already been included in 15 districts.
The unconditional cash transfers made under BISP since the programme was introduced in 2008 with a monthly stipend of Rs1,000 have had a multifaceted socioeconomic impact. Not only have they increased the purchasing power of millions of households, they have also sustained innumerable small businesses across the country. Moreover, BISP has empowered women who constitute, by design, most of the recipients — as is seemly considering whom the programme is named after. However, some spring-cleaning of this massive countrywide scheme was clearly needed. In December, the government announced that 800,125 names had been removed from the beneficiaries’ list after BISP data revealed they were “undeserving” of inclusion. Further forensic analysis brought more shocking revelations to the fore: over 140,000 of such beneficiaries were government servants. It is difficult to comprehend the callousness that can motivate some to misappropriate funds meant to ameliorate the desperate poverty of fellow Pakistanis. Investigations so far have resulted in the recovery of Rs600,000 of the embezzled funds in what one hopes is a sustained process. A programme such as BISP needs to be regularly, and transparently, updated. Without transparency it can easily be tainted by accusations that it is being used to serve political ends.
Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020